Blog: Jude Christian

The Salford-based director on her new adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello and Macbeth

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“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Isaac Newton in 1675. The phrase describes how human achievement is built on the work and discoveries of those who went before – Newton himself was coining an idea that had been kicking around for centuries before he was born.

When I was asked to direct a double bill of two of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Othello and Macbeth, I started looking at parallels between the stories, to find a common thread between them. After a year of research and development, I’d drafted a script where characters from Othello are reincarnated as the characters from Macbeth, and the storyline of the first play spills over into the second. It felt like it had become a new play, so I named it Othellomacbeth.

Taking the choicest bits of existing works and using them to create your own is nothing new. Many of Shakespeare’s own plays were based on older stories, and many works of art created since have been based on them, whether they credit the original source or not. As Sarah Kane (one of Britain’s greatest playwrights) put it: “Theft is the holy act / On a twisted path to expression.”

In the case of Othellomacbeth, I had two reasons for cutting up and re-stitching the plays. The first was that I have always loved the language and drama of Shakespeare’s work, but find some of his stories frustrating or even enraging. The way they enforce oppressive social hierarchy, the way they seem to glorify some acts of violence (even while condemning others), the way they prioritise the voices of men over women, and vilify or exoticise people from other countries or cultures. It would be inconceivable to me to stage a new play without questioning whether its depictions of power and prejudice are interestingly complex or insidiously poisonous, so why treat an old play differently?

The second reason for getting so heavy-handed with the plays is that these aren’t just any old plays. They’re known across the English-speaking world, they’re performed constantly, they’re taught regularly in school, they’re widely quoted, and cited as cornerstones of our culture and defining depictions of our “universal” human nature. Their effect, therefore, is amplified. When we repeatedly characterise a man as a “tragic hero” after he murders his wife, or depict women either as property to be transacted, or manipulative witches or “fiends”, when we suggest that someone from a foreign country is innately incapable of living in our society without reverting to violence, these stories become tropes, and gain influence by repetition. We should take responsibility for that.

The plays’ fame also makes them fun to remix. I hope that a lot of the people who come and see Othellomacbeth won’t have seen the plays before, but I suspect that a large percentage of the audience will have watched, read or studied them in some format. I hope it will be exciting for them, not just to see the plays feeling fresh, vibrant and relevant, but also to see some familiar characters and events reimagined.

The aim of Othellomacbeth, in part, is to give the audience space to think about the stories they’re watching, even while they’re watching them. When you sit down to watch your favourite film with someone you love, who’s never seen that film before, you watch it differently because you’re seeing it through their eyes (or I do at least). In the same way, watching a famous play and watching one of its characters watch it, makes you see the action of the play through their eyes, which might in turn influence how you respond to it.

I reckon any decent scholar or artist will tell you there’s no “definitive” interpretation of Shakespeare – there isn’t even a “definitive” text for most of his plays. They were living art when they were first performed, and that’s how we should approach them now. To me, the question isn’t so much “why reinvent Shakespeare?” so much as “why not keep reinventing all plays?”. It is, as Sarah Kane says, “a time-honoured tradition” to be part of “a long line of literary kleptomaniacs”.

Othellomacbeth is at Home until 29 September then at Lyric Hammersmith, 5 Oct-3 Nov

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